Monday. February 3rd. 2020

Just a short twenty-minute drive up the dirt road leading past the Very Large Array radio observatory, I was past the Plains of San Agustin, a flat-floored, 50-mile long once Pleistocene lake, and into the San Mateo mountains. Already signs of elk and more importantly, potential wolf activity was coming to view. A little way down the trail from my campsite were the skeletal remains of a consumed cow. In fact, lying within my campsite were two ominous detached deer legs, still with the fur attached.

The winds through the VLA today were incredible! They tore down from the forests and into the plains where the observatory is at. The dishes are dispersed along 13-miles of railroad tracks that branch out in separate directions to form a Y-shape.

The assembly has three configurations to listen deeply into space for radio waves, the longest in wavelengths and occurring within the deepest reaches of space. As I got out to take a picture, a gust of wind came upon me so fiercely that it pushed me to the side and violently threw open the truck door near to what I thought would be its breaking point. Inside the visitor's center, guests can pick up good information, and watch a short movie narrated by Helen Hunt. It also has a nice walking tour that takes you right beneath one of the gigantic 90’ wide dishes. But all of this was only a stopping point to what really was my intended destination: The Gila National Forest.

My aim for camping within these remote and isolated lands was to encounter wildlife I’ve not yet seen in my travels. Primarily, that of wolves. I didn’t have my hopes set too high, though, as I would imagine wolves to be extremely elusive and distant. Not ones to just pop their heads into a campsite and expose themselves out of curiosity.

Click for an informative ARCGIS map

There’s good tree cover at my campsite and hopefully, it will have some effect with the wind, but there’s nothing I can do about the cold front moving in. I saw that the nighttime temperatures would drop down into the teens for the next two days, but then bounce back up again by the weekend. Whether I go to the Gila Forest now or later, it would mean enduring two days of cold. From the weather reports, I wasn’t supposed to see any of the coming precipitation like I would have if I had stayed in Santa Fe, but I was in for a serious surprise!


Tuesday. February 4th. 2020

With the different temperatures from inside to outside the camper shell, I almost always get a light crusting of frost on the windows when the cool night air sets in. However, this morning I could actually see snow piling up along the edges of the windows. I knew the temps were going to below freezing, but I had specifically gone south with intentions on avoiding any snowfall!

I could only pull a weather report for a nearby city, which I suppose, was enough distance from where I was camped at to make a difference. Either way, I took it as a blessing as my goal for this excursion was to go off into Wolf Management Zones and hopefully encounter some wildlife. A fresh snowfall meant a blank canvas when looking for animal tracks.

Before leaving the Radio Observatory (VLA) I chatted with the gal working the visitors center there (Colette) and asked her about the nearby campsite. She wasn’t familiar with the one I had mentioned, but we started talking about roads and weather. And with each one that got mentioned, she started pulling up webpages and printing them out in full. I left with a stack of papers that really didn’t serve me all too well, but her one suggestion of taking a picture of the map on the wall did become my beacon of hope in a forested territory hundreds of miles deep and void of any human resources beyond simple cattle fencing.

Back at camp, from the scattered cow remains, I grabbed a big half of the mandible and packed it into the roof rack storage trunk. I can't help myself sometimes when it comes to bones and things of this sort. I had also harvested a bit of firewood from the area and made for myself a sizable bundle. The signs leading in stated it was a fuelwood collection site so a lot of the trees had already been felled for their better parts, but plenty of medium size pieces remained. Little did I know that all along the forest roads I would be following the trail of some truck or trailer that had been hauling said firewood and now and again would lose a couple of pieces. I would stop every so often and collect pieces of perfectly dried and split hardwood.

And then, the once dried and windswept plains turned into a bit of rolling hills with a light blanketing of snow from the adjacent mountain range. I saw a herd of elk or possibly mule deer. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance on these species as they are all new to me and I get so overwhelmed by it. I make my best assessment but am stuck between thoughts of anticipated hopes and amateur guess-work.

I had entered the wilderness with three-quarters of a tank of gas and most any direction I decided to travel in would be less than 100 miles to the nearest town or landmark. I figured I had enough resources to make it in and out, but as I started to travel from one forest road to another, I found myself having to re-assess the situation and factor in the math for if I would have to backtrack and take an alternate route because a route became too challenging.

I had followed my instincts well enough up until this point, soldiering on through the forest and not needing to make any detours, but the last route towards Mogollon looked like I would encounter a great deal of elevation. Evaluating the distance of possible switchback terrain, I decided I would take the next forest road that cuts off this particular corner of the Gila and angle me up towards Apache Creek.

The terrain had changed several times already, and as I rolled along the long dusty roads, snow would stop and start in different patches of land. After I'd seen the elk, I would continue on deep into the snow-covered forest. I climbed higher and higher and had been the only noticeable tracks within this white scene. I made it all the way up to Elk Mountain’s Peak of 9400’ feet and watched as the snow shot through the trees sideways with a force that garnered immediate respect.

Clearing the top of the peak, I was on the switchbacks taking me down the opposite side of the range and out towards Highway 12. The first of paved roads in over a hundred miles of travel. Highway 12 took me past Apache Creek, where I'd thought there'd be a shot at getting some gas, but all that appeared was one lone plow-truck and two snow-covered buildings telling me I'm not out of the woods yet.

I finally had intermittent cell service and could see there was another town, thirty miles down the road and so I went for it. I rolled into the quiet, wood-cabin style mountain town of Reserve and could have easily overlooked the four gas pumps had it not been 15mph through the quarter-mile-long street. I did notice that two of their Mexican cafes were bustling at this afternoon hour and now that I had the gas tank full, I might as well fill up the stomach! I carry plenty of food with me, but part of the joys of travel is getting to see and experience the small slices of life that exist in these off-the-beaten-path towns.

NEW MEXICO PART 2: San Lorenzo Canyon to Gila National Forest (VIDEO)

Ella’s had a right good breakfast menu and seeing as this was still the southwest, the all too familiar question of, “Red or Green,” was asked when I ordered huevos rancheros. The question, of course, is referring to the chili. It's still the same pepper, but green chilis are picked sooner than the red ones and they each have their own characteristics. I am still discovering all the many ways they can be used. The chilis are also grown in hot, medium and mild varieties for spice level.

I took my time here as they also had wifi and I could download a few more podcasts for the remainder of my route, which I was also planning out. As mentioned, I was deep within the heart of wolf country and wanted to keep exploring, but the weather had grown awful cold and this dry snow likes to stick around when it falls. It can easily pile up an additional foot onto the already laid down snow within the wilderness and makes for a hard time trying to pick out a campsite that isn't up past your knees. So, I figured I’d given a few good efforts at finding the wolves and would start to make my way out of the territory and continue on down south towards Silver City. I’d done a great deal of driving today already and wanted something close. The Cosmic Campground looked like a perfect slice of heaven.


but isn’t today the best day of my life?

All the experiences of the day, leading up to the single, unfathomable recognition that this lovely night beneath the stars, beside a campfire, enjoying a skillet cooked dinner is certainly the accumulation of a vast wealth of striving to find moments like now. I am sure the tenacity I have for life will continue to bring me to new experiences and unimagined horizons, but right now, I am content with where I am at. The hole in my heart is mending and I am giving myself the self-love it has asked for. Having awoken to literal, snow driven purity in absolute, god-intended wilderness, I’m amazed at what simple things bring to light the best parts of myself and the underlying connection I have to nature. Cold weather hadn’t kept me away from finding this moment. The unmapped, empty forest roads didn’t deter me from finding it either.

“Are you lost,” someone asked me as I flipped through the maps in the town’s general store. To which they answered themselves, “No, you must not be. You found this town.” I don’t think I could be lost, despite having mini-panic episodes driving anxiously through the seemingly endless forest roads. Deep inside the Gila Forest called forth a certainty from within. That I did, in fact, know where I was going. That I had anticipated these moments and thought to carry with me spare fuel, extra rations, restocked water before leaving civilization and so on and so forth. Not to mention I had my instincts. Which, without getting too quasi-scientific for this instance, has never lead me astray. Often, they’ve taken me to the most incredible places and as I’m flanked by three other happy camping motorists at the cosmic campgrounds, I thanked the stars, I thanked the heavens, I thanked the grounds and I thanked the unnameable beauty that had me wrapped up tightly in a big, much-needed embrace. And for the first time on this trip, despite knowing full well that I would leave this place soon, I was completely content with exactly where I was at.

Before I had lit the campfire that evening, I ventured out along one of the ridges to see if any twilight animals could be seen scurrying about. There were tracks all over the place of great diversity. I also started to find little shiny pieces of crystal laying in the red-brown desert dirt. On my way back to the plot of land I had seized for the night, I saw three, then a fourth hare bolt from the juniper brush and stop to listen for my movements before continuing on out of precaution. It was low light so not a chance of catching them on camera, let alone catching them in pursuit. They took off and down the hill into the next series of junipers. I remember their ears being so long they would trail way behind them as they hopped and ran. And then return to upright when they were alert and listening for predators. Which, judging by the tracks, I may not be out of wolf country yet! Likely coyotes, but deer were aplenty and cow too.

Wednesday. February 5th. 2020

By dawn, I was up again examining the grounds searching for tracks and more crystals. The birds were certainly out, but I was quickly becoming more fixated on the ground beneath me than I was on looking out ahead for any animal movement on the horizon. All around me, shining brightly from the red soil were crystals. I could only go about two minutes of walking before spotting a second, third, etc.. Eventually, I became keen on how the land was shaped and where the deposits were more likely to occur. This entire area was an ancient stream bed and carried within it were the exploded remains of super hot volcanic glass. I then started to discover actual geodes, with their micro-crystals displayed within the cavernous insides. I filled my pockets with at least twenty good scores and made my way back to the campsite.

All the vehicles that were here through the night had left, beyond my own. So I crawled into the back and lounged a bit with all the windows upon to this warm and tantalizing view. I got up not long after and made egg + salsa tacos upon Santa Fe’s great corn tortillas. As mentioned in the last story, my favorite roadside meal had become this dish! I tidied up the vehicle, washing the crystals I found in a bucket of water and set up the solar panels to recharge the battery bank as I worked. I took out all the bedding and trimmed up the memory foam beneath to lay a bit flatter and put extra padding up near the midsection to protect my hips. I tucked all the bedding back together and things were looking fresh as the day I had put it all together. Just like the urge to eat came, so too did the calling to explore. This time I’d take off towards a canyon wall I could see peeking out from behind one of the distant ridges. It was probably a solid mile, mile and a half to its face, but I’d have to cross at least four ridges to get there. Which meant a lot of up and down along loose, scrambled rocks.

What I couldn’t see in this assessment were the drop-offs along those smaller ridges leading out to what I’d seen. Even they had a bit of cliff-face which meant I had to pick and choose my lines to not land myself within a mini-canyon I could not easily climb out of. I was still helpless to the temptation to scan the ground for more crystals, but despite my heavy trudging, I was able to catch the movement of a single mule deer on the opposing ridge. I watched it stop and use the tall junipers to camouflage itself against the brown hillsides. If it weren’t for that stark white, worried face and those flittering ears, you’d never see it. But it doesn’t stand still long when it senses something. I was downwind from it, but my sounds surely echoed out and across to the opposite rocky ridge where it was standing and observing me from. It took off and continued up the hillside letting the tight coils within its legs come loose, hopping high into the air and disappearing over the ridge. I called her Ms. Boing Boing and for the rest of the day would be calling out, wondering where Ms. Boing Boing went. The tracks were too scattered and abundant to tell which were hers, but I surely kept myself noticed enough by the noises I made to never see her a second time.

I got way back, half a dozen ridge divides and finally started to see the curving line of the cliff wall that lined this prehistoric riverbed. The stream had gone dry and I climbed my way down into it to walk amongst its ancient geological history.

The geological history of New Mexico is one riddled with landmark changes from the first volcanoes and mountains making their mark on the landscape during the Paleozoic (Old) periods of time. 1.35 billion years ago, they were eroded down and the process was repeated over and again until 570 million years ago the now flat, featureless basin gave rise to a great sweeping sea that invaded the landscape. Successive layers of marine deposits were made, creating a rich, limestone barrier reef that stretched out across most of the state. Late in this period, an ancient version of the Rockies started to rise up, segmenting the sea and causing them to dry up.

Then begins the Mesozoic (Middle) period. The sea continues to dry, winds sweep in sands creating the colorful red and pink cliffs and dinosaurs began to roam. An asteroid strikes some 1500 miles away from here in the Yucatán and all but their petrified remains are left. But not all growth was halted, the Rockies continued yet another progression upward. The Earth continued to grow colder and colder causing most all of the plants and animals to die off and at the end of this period, the North America plate breaks free from Europe (foreshadowing??), drifts westward and magma welled upward in this fault creating the mid-Atlantic Ridge.

A series of faults strike out across the new continent and the steep-walled cliffs of the Rio Grande and the step-plateau mesas of the four corner region are formed. Thus begins the Cenozoic (Current) period and new animals began to emerge. Pre-historic ungulates existed here, long before their domestic counterparts were brought over. Volcanic eruptions and fault activity continued to pull and stretch the landscape creating tilt ranges in the Colorado Plateau and also within the four corners. The Rio Grande was born from the conjoined flow of all the neighboring rivers and streams and traveled from Colorado all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. (Source: Roadside Geology of New Mexico. Halka Chronic. Mountain Press PC, 1987)

The steep wall of cemented tertiary rock I saw lining this stream bed is called a conglomerate. It towers over the now, dried-up gulches and has soft, crumbled sand down at its basin. The conglomerate looks man-made with large, eroded stones cast into it. The climb towards this gulley had been tough, and the terrain was unforgiving for stability and traction control, but now within its soft, easy to traverse floor, I was enjoying the warmth and cool patches of shade as it twisted and turned.